We’re pleased to present the inaugural column of Turning The Screw, existential crisis counseling for the faint of heart. “Because nothingness becomes you!”
I’m about to have a baby and it’s scaring me to death. I know that I’m meant to be a mother, but I don’t want to spend the next ten years with apple sauce stuck to my clothes. I feel like I’m watching my good life disappear in front of my eyes.
My wife thinks I’m being melodramatic (this is her usual take) but she’s not the one who’s pregnant. She’s a busy executive who makes a pretty big salary and works around the clock. This is part of my fear, of course: that she gets the great career downtown and I’m stuck at home in Noe Valley, like a dairy cow, feeding the kid, while my own career languishes. When I think about exposing my son to great art and music and different cultures, I can soothe myself a little, but then I remember that the next few years are just going to be me, alone on the couch with spit-up on my shoulder, feeling resentful.
I’m also old. I feel like I started this whole thing too late, and by the time I’m out of the weeds, all the good times will have dried up and all I’ll be left with is a lame career, a damaged marriage and a teenager who hates me. And then what?
Then what? Well, then you’ll grow older and older and your kid will move away and never call or write, and your spouse (who doesn’t even seem to like you anymore) will also get older and older and then she’ll get arthritis or she’ll blow out her knees and you’ll have to move to a bad condo with no stairs, and then she’ll die and you’ll be traumatized and lonely and pissed off at your kid for not helping more. (“Oh, I’m sure Barcelona really is amazing, with all those wonderful museums and open air concerts, especially when you’re not the least bit guilty about your dear old mom back in the states, who would give anything just to spend one goddamn holiday in your presence, you ungrateful fuck.”) And then you’ll get even older. And then your kid will fly back to put you in a nursing home so you don’t blow his inheritance, and he’ll take away your mail-order catalogues, which were the only thing keeping you cemented to this mortal coil, and you’ll drift off into a haze of flocked wallpaper and urine smells and colorful pills in tiny paper cups and confused roommates, crying out for their dead mothers in the still of the night, the loneliness magnified, somehow, by the wheezing hiss of the air conditioning vent and the flatulent squish of the night nurse’s triple-soled shoes, padding down the carpeted hallways outside, double-checking Frank Avison’s DNR orders before resolving to ignore his labored breaths until the morning.
Yes, lean into the horror of it! Without the terror of existential vertigo, you have no motive for clawing your way up that sheer cliff and redefining your (inherently meaningless, mildly pathetic) existence.
You know what’s awesome, though? As petulant and unforgiving as they are, babies have a pretty singular way of distracting you from the brutal impact of your slow, sickening decline for a long, long time. They don’t just distract, in fact, they create the illusion that you’re building something important, rather than just decomposing in slow motion. This illusion of growth/importance is exactly what makes most parents so fucking insufferable. But it also keeps them from murdering themselves and each other. Most of the time.
What’s funny about the eve of child-birthing is that you believe yourself to be teetering on the brink of a terrible new life, whereas those who’ve been there recognize that you’re about to be handed a free pass from justifying your existence for the next decade. No one really thinks you’re doing something good for the world by bringing another lazy, entitled future film student into the world, mind you. But your hormones are going to feed you that fairy tale, so lean into that shit and savor the hell out of it.
And hire some more down-to-earth, less self-involved female immigrants to raise your kid while you’re at it, so you can spend your time on more important things, like redecorating, and hair removal. Nothingkeeps you from reckoning with your own mortality quite like a swift jerk of the waxing strip, followed by a long conversation with a Room & Board Senior Design Associate about whether or not that Bradshaw cocktail table goes with your Odin leather sectional in Dijon. (It doesn’t, by the way).
People with lots of money never have to stare into the inky-black abyss for very long. People with money and babies? Forget it. They’re more insulated from reality than the Michelin man. Totally no fair. But then, what isn’t?
See you in the lobby at 3 for Bingo!
I want to quit my job, but I can’t get up the courage to do it. I work at a law office, but I’m only there part-time. I can support myself with that for now, but I know that every hour I spend in that place is an hour wasted. I don’t want to waste my life. But I don’t know what else I should be doing. Every time I try to think about some other career that might make me happier, I get depressed. I write down my feelings in journals and sometimes that helps. But whenever I think about trying to write something more meaningful, like a poem or a novel, I get depressed about the fact that I’ll never get paid to do that for a living, and I’ll never be any good, so why even bother?
I just feel like I should make some kind of a mark on the world.
Dear Wishy Washy,
My dog feels the same way. She solves this spiritual crisis by pissing on stuff.
And sometimes, when I’m trying to write (I’ve been a professional writer for well over a decade, and I still get depressed about the fact that I’ll never get paid again and I’ll never be any good), I remember that making a mark on the world, the way most of us have the ego-driven urge to do it, doesn’t generally transcend the level of peeing on someone else’s front lawn. Yes, a dog might wander by and press its nose into what you’ve “created,” or someone will go outside and see the brown patch of grass on their otherwise immaculate, lush green landscaping, and they’ll curse the besmirching of their personal property (because somehow your mark reflects poorly on the mark that they’re making on the world). But overall, unless you’re operating on cancer patients or advocating for troubled foster children, you’re just a drain on global resources, a carbuncle on the smooth ass cheek of humanity.
The sooner you come to terms with that, the better. Because most of us today are absolutely stricken with this pointless compulsion to “make a mark,” typically in ways that don’t involve helping other human beings or working hard to change the systematic raping and pillaging of everything good and pure in the world. Personally, I struggle mightily to convince myself that my efforts to put words on the page are worthwhile and not just some elaborate, indulgent, expensive act of extreme vanity. Some days these efforts seem worthwhile, sure. But most of the time it’s clear that, in the big scheme of things, I’m no better than a common mongrel doing my best to ruin the neighbor’s begonias.
So I’m done with this making-a-mark bullshit, because your mark can never really be big enough to satisfy your ravenous ego. And even when your mark is big, you have no palpable way of knowing how many other dogs are sniffing your genius, or how many are merely anxious to mask your stank with their own. Recognizing the total pointlessness of writing has been sort of emancipating, though. I’m free to admit that I enjoy writing – sometimes, almost—and that’s why I do it. I like the practice, sort of. I like to feel like I’m improving, even if that’s an illusion. Even though this is a thin, semi-masturbatory justification for writing, it’s the only thing that remotely motivates me to sally forth.
You, on the other hand, are in the enviable position of having a marketable skill (knowledge of the law). You can use your skill for good (helping the disenfranchised, the underserved, those continually sodomized by The Man, etc.) instead of evil. And even if you just continue to live off meaningless part-time work, and spend the other half of your time going back to school or writing or painting, guess what? We all waste some time on survival. You’re pretty lucky you have to waste so little of your time on it. In fact, sometimes the wasted hours are actually the ones keeping you sane. Hours eaten up by making meals, working out, performing rote tasks—Viktor Frankl saw these routines as a necessary structure, a trellis if you will, without which the creeping vine of True Happiness could never bloom. (True Happiness is an invasive species, though, so don’t actually plant it.)
Remember: Obsessing about your legacy, whether you’re just starting out or world-famous, is like sniffing your own mess. If you have to do it, at least have the common courtesy not to do it in public.
Here’s to pissing into the wind with increased efficiency!
Send your existential inquiries, philosophical dilemmas, pressing life questions and haunting trivialities to firstname.lastname@example.org. Letters may be edited for length and clarity.
Heather Havrilesky (aka Polly Esther) is our new existential advice columnist. She’s also a regular contributor to The New York Times Magazine, and is the author of the memoir Disaster Preparedness (Riverhead 2011). She blogs here about scratchy pants, personality disorders, and aged cheeses.Photo by Splinter Group.